Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday with two days remaining to pass legislation intended to shore up Kentucky's pension plans for state and local government retirees.
Restoring solvency to the pension system, which has a $33 billion unfunded liability, has been divisive for the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic-led House, which have been working on the issue since the Legislature convened in January.
Rep. Tommy Turner, R-Somerset, said he expects lawmakers to meet until midnight both days.
"The last few days have historically been the busiest," Turner said. "I don't know why, but we always seem to wait until the last days, until time is running out, to get things done."
Kentucy Governor Steve Beshear has announced he is vetoing a controversial religious freedom bill. Civil rights groups had urged a veto, saying the measure would essentially legalize certain forms of discrimination against gays and lesbians by groups and individuals who could claim they were doing so because of their religious beliefs.
Some church groups from across the state have been urging Beshear to sign the bill, saying it would give stronger legal standing to people who claim their religious rights have been violated.
“Religious freedom is a cornerstone of this great nation, and a right enshrined in both the United States Constitution and the Kentucky Constitution,” Gov. Beshear said in a statement released by his office. “I value and cherish our rights to religious freedom and I appreciate the good intentions of House Bill 279 and the members of the General Assembly who supported this bill to protect our constitutional rights to practice our religion."
State leaders are still working to find solutions to the Kentucky's troubled pension system —but he's not promising a deal the time the General Assembly regular session ends next week, Gov. Steve Beshear said on Monday.
Beshear has mediated sessions between House and Senate leadership on reforming the pension systems and how to fund them, after the chambers came to an impasse on the issue.
Those conversations have continued since the General Assembly adjourned last week for the veto period, but Beshear said he can't predict whether legislators will strike a deal before the 2013 session ends.
"One can never predict what will happen in the end, particularly in a legislative session but I feel good about where we are right now," Beshear said.
If lawmakers can't reach a deal, a special session to deal with the issue is likely.
After five years of advocacy, supporters of raising Kentucky's dropout age to 18 celebrated Monday as Gov. Steve Beshear signed the bill into law.
Flanked by House and Senate lawmakers—as well as First Lady Jane Beshear—the governor officially signed the law in a ceremony in his conference room. The bill would make raising the dropout age voluntarily for school districts until 55 percent of all districts made the change. Then it would become mandatory statewide. The legislation is a compromise reached by lawmakers in the 2013 General Assembly session.
Jane Beshear says the fact the five year fight on the issue is over is monumental for education in the Commonwealth.
"And I can't say it's a small step, it's a huge step," she said.
Governor Steve Beshear has one week to veto a controversial law protecting religious freedom or else it will become law.
On the federal level, if a bill isn't signed by the President within a certain period of time, it's thrown out in a process called the pocket veto.
But in Kentucky, the process is reversed. The governor has 10 days to sign a bill into law. But if he doesn't sign or veto in that time, it becomes law anyway.
Consider it a pocket law. The legislation in question is the so-called Religious Freedom bill, which allows Kentuckians to bypass laws they saw interfere with their religious beliefs. Opponents say it would overturn Fairness laws in cities across the commonwealth, and have lobbied the governor to act.
But the governor hasn't hinted at what he'll do with the bill.
With only two days left in the legislative session, Tea Party activists are encouraging Kentucky Senators to not confirm Insurance Commissioner Sharon Clark.
So far, the Senate has approved all of Governor Steve Beshear's appointments except Clark. Many activists are upset with her role in implementing the Affordable Care Act in Kentucky and they hope to send a message to the governor by blocking her nomination.
A Senate spokeswoman says whether lawmakers will consider the nomination when they return from recess later this month is still “to be determined.” David Adams is the lead activist calling for the rejection of Clark.
"We have to send a signal that this is a problem, this is unacceptable and must be dealt with swiftly and surely," says Adams.
Both the Department of Insurance and the Governor's Office declined to comment.
With only two days left in this year's Kentucky General Assembly session, time is running out for supporters of legislation meant to keep two western Kentucky aluminum smelters—which employ about 3,000 people—from closing.
Under state law, the smelters are required to purchase electricity from the nearest company—Big Rivers Electric, in this case. The smelters say lower aluminum prices have them struggling to pay the bills; they're asking for more options for where they get electricity.
Their legislative supporters want to let the smelters purchase electricity on the open market.
Opponents argue that giving the smelters lower rates or open market options would increase prices for the average customer.
A Warren County lawmaker says he feels good about the chances of a pension reform measure being finalized by the end of the legislative session. Republican Representative Jim DeCesare told WKU Public Radio he doesn’t think there are many differences remaining between the two parties.
“It was my understanding that when we left there both sides weren’t that far apart," said the Rockfield lawmaker. "We just have some details to work out on three or four main issues. And the hope is that they can come to some sort of a conclusion and some kind of result that everybody can live with.”
DeCesare said pension reform is “without a doubt” the single most important issue lawmakers need to hammer out before the session ends. A bill passed by the Republican-led Senate creates 401-K like retirement plan for new government workers, while a House-passed bill would use money raised from the lottery and horse tracks to fund the state’s pension contributions.
Most Kentucky lawmakers are back home for the next week-and-a-half, while some conferees remain at the state capitol trying to work out differences between the House and Senate. All lawmakers will return to Frankfort March 25-26 for the final two days of the regular session.
Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner is speaking out against efforts to amend his number one legislative priority—a much talked-about industrial hemp measure. James Comer says an amendment allowing five years of hemp growing demonstration projects in the state is just an effort to kill the bill.
The measure has enjoyed a good deal of bipartisan support in Frankfort, and passed the full Senate and the House Agriculture Committee. But the bill is now hanging by a thread after House Speaker Greg Stumbo refused to allow the bill an up-or-down vote. And the Courier-Journal reports Comer isn’t pleased with an amendment offered this week that would have the Kentucky State Police—instead of the Agriculture Department—issue licenses for hemp-growing demonstration projects.
Still, the bill’s sponsor—Senator Paul Hornback of Shelbyville—says he plans to meet with House leaders next week to allow some kind of action on the measure when lawmakers return for the final two days of the session on March 25th and 26th.
Kentucky legislators have returned home for the next 12 days after passing a flurry of bills in the recent days of the 2013 General Assembly session.
But many big issues still remain on the table and lawmakers will have two days left—March 25 and 26—to hammer out any remaining issues, including pensions and military voting bills.
Between now and then, a few lawmakers will work to resolve those final issues during the so-called veto recess, which is two weeks for the governor to consider all passed bills so far and whether he should sign them into law or strike them down.
Here's the list of what got finished, what's still in limbo and what's likely to be at its final resting place.